Evolutionary Processes

What species mate for life?
Answered by Martha Barksdale
  • Martha Barksdale

    Martha Barksdale

  1. As any human on the dating scene will tell you, it's a lot of work to find a good mate. This applies to all members of the animal kingdom. You need to groom your coat, make sure your hoots and howls are more vigorous than your rivals', and sometimes you've got to shake your tailfeathers. Little wonder that some animals, like many humans, want to hang on to their mates once they find them. But monogamy is rare in nature. Only a few animals cling to one mate "until death do they part," so to speak. More common is polyandry, which is one female with a bevy of male mates, or polygyny, which is one male with many females. Though these practices don't describe what we would think of as family values, they can help some species survive and reproduce more efficiently.

    A few animals do practice what we'd call monogamy, although mating for life is extremely rare. Most birds are monogamous, at least for a season, but some do indeed mate for life. Black vultures show that beauty is not the key to finding the love of your life. They have even been observed attacking other vultures that strayed from their own mates [source: Mother Nature]. The beautiful swan is famous for its lifetime bonding, as are Canada geese and turtledoves, but who knew the Big Bad Wolf went home to his wife and cubs after terrorizing the Three Little Pigs? Another furry creature that mates for life is the prairie vole, although monogamy is not common among other rodents.

    Lifetime mating can help animals save energy and time. When practicing monogamy, you can save all of the time and effort you might have spent attracting a mate each spring and put it to different use, hunting for food, building a sturdy home or even gliding gracefully around a pond in a park to see if anyone throws you bread crumbs. Studies with Canada geese have shown that having a division of labor between a male and a female leads to better reproductive health, possibly because stress is reduced by having someone to share the load [source: Akesson and Raveling]. Monogamy offers protection, also. With two parents around all the time to protect the young, they stand a better chance of reaching adulthood and not winding up in a predator's belly.

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